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Deadly Diet: School Lunches Flunk Out

A national wellness campaign is working to take junk food out of schools, and put nutrition back in.

So Long, Snickers; Farewell, Fries

The responsibility for making sure that happens often falls squarely on the shoulders of parents, says Dabney, who spent the next several years lobbying -- often against resistance from principals, superintendents, and school boards -- for change in the way Austin's public schools fed their children.

Dabney ultimately became the parent advisory committee chair for Austin's School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), which worked with schools to restock vending machines with healthier foods and beverages, and to implement a wellness policy banning booster club food sales. No longer competing with vending-machine junk food, the school's food service program was able to cut back drastically on the greasy pizzas and fries that once dominated the a la carte line.

These changes haven't been easy, says Dabney.

"Parents have to be proactive here," she says. "The schools have been doing this for so long, and they really have their plates full -- no pun intended. But if we can change how they think about children's nutrition, health, and academics, we'll change the kinds of decisions they make. That's what we've seen in Austin."

Starting in July, parents seeking to replace Tater Tots with tomatoes at school have a new weapon: the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act. This law requires that all schools participating in the federal School Lunch Program -- essentially, all public schools -- develop a wellness policy focused on the provision of healthy foods.

"It's a brand new day," says Julia Lear, director of the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools at George Washington University. "It opens a big door to every parent who's been concerned about too many french fries."

4 Steps Parents Can Take

Lear advises concerned parents to call their superintendent or members of their school board and ask what their district's wellness policy entails. Some key questions to ask:

  • Who makes decisions about what's for lunch?
  • Who makes decisions about school policy on vending machines, and snacks and sodas in the cafeteria or student store?
  • Who makes decisions about what foods can be sold as part of student activity fund-raisers -- and how can parents participate in the policy-making process?
  • Does the school or school district post its lunch menus for the week and do the menus provide information about nutrition facts?

5 Ways to Get Help

Activist parents like Dabney have already paved the way. If you want to get involved in your child's health at school, there are countless ways to do it and resources to use. A few ideas:

"This is an excellent time to bring this message home," says McAllister. "Don't leave your child's nutrition to somebody else."

Reviewed on August 27, 2008

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